Perfect Sound Forever

Electronic Music Survival Guide


RCA Mark II Synthesizer at Computer Music Center at Columbia
Portrait of Vladimir Kirilovitch Ussachevsky in the center

Advice, aesthetics & practicalities
by Jason Gross
(December 2011)


If you were invited to an international arts conference where artists, curators, administrators and educators presented their projects and discussed important issues in their fields (with some schmoozing going on too of course), it would be tough to turn down, provided that you could afford the trip to Boston.  That's just what happened last November when Nate McDermott, a curator at the Boston Center for the Arts, contacted me to find out if I wanted to participate in a panel called 'Survival Kit for Electronic Composers/Musicians' for the Transcultural Exchange's third conference, happening in early April 2011.  Here's what he had in mind:

"...talk about how artist's can create opportunities to get their work heard in an unorthodox field where there's little in the way of traditional models for touring, record distribution, or getting press.  Many people who compose or play experimental music come from outside academia and there aren't many resources for how to be self-sufficient therefore having to learn a lot by trial and error."  

Sounds like an interesting challenge, doesn't it?  I had some background in compiling a box set, OHM, the Early Gurus of Electronic Music, and interviewed and profiled several composers before and after that so I thought I might have something worthwhile to add.

Part of what I wanted to share for the panel, and some of which I did, was a tale of two drummers.  The first story started with the SXSW (South By Southwest) music conference.  A few years ago, they organized a writers' workshop where seasoned scribes would meet up with eager young writers to try to pass along some advice.  Some of my friends who signed up to mentor actually found themselves talking to musicians many times instead, who were asking them 'how do I get noticed?'  Later, I told this story to drummer/composer/label head Chris Culter, who was in disbelief.  "I would have told them to go into a more lucrative line of work, like finance!" he said.  "If you really want to be a musician, you should want to do it so badly that it doesn't matter if you're noticed."  He wasn't pushing the romantic starving-artist ideal but instead saying that you'd find some way to play music if it's really a deep and insatiable ambition that won't let go of you.

A week before I went to the Transculture conference, I also met up with another drummer, Michael O'Keefe, a technology consultant and former boss of mine, who also plays in rock bands alongside former members of Steely Dan and David Bowie's group.  I told him the panel topic and his immediate response was, "tell them that they have to play crappy gigs."  He didn't mean that anyone should play badly at a gig (unless you're a punk I guess)- he meant that in order to harden yourself and get into the thick of the music world, you'll have to play some shows under less-than-ideal circumstances.  For him, that meant sometimes playing in small, dingy bars, but for the conference audience, that might also mean playing at art spaces that didn't meet fire codes or lofts that hadn't been touched by a broom or vacuum in years.  This last part did come up in the panel, where our moderator, Dan Hirsh (Director of Music Programs for ArtsEmerson at Emerson College), noted some other non-traditional avenues open to musicians for performance, including DIY spaces like warehouses.

Another topic that came up during the panel was important lessons for musicians that we had learned in our own work.  For me, part of what was eye-opening about OHM was to see how some of the most respected electronic composers of the last century earned a living in a genre without self-sustaining album sales.  A number of them built on their reputation, getting into academics:  John Chowning at Stanford, Paul Lansky at Princeton, Alvin Lucier at Weslyn and the late Milton Babbitt at Princeton and Julliard. Another panelist, Micah Silver (composer and curator for the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute), pointed out that these cases were actually rare- they aren't a lot of positions like that available across the country.  He was right about that but each of these composers I mentioned are in long-term programs that would one day need new instructors, which is where a new generation of composers would come into play. 

Another lesson I learned from the OHM experience that I spoke about at the panel was the importance being available to the public and press.  The prime example for me was (and is) La Monte Young.  His "Trio For Strings" alone was a hallmark in 20th century music, heralding the beginning of the minimalist music movement but he had also done a number of stunning, ambitious electronic pieces later on, including the decades-long-and-still-running installation 'The Dream House.'  As he and I discussed licensing one of his pieces (a seven-minute edit of "Drift Study 31 I 69 12:17:30 - 12:49:58 PM NYC"), I found out that he could be kind of difficult to work with at times, becoming very demanding about how his work is presented (at one point, he also demanded to be paid for interviews). 

Luckily, Young and I came to an agreement, but not before he told me "you're working me harder than Columbia did!"  He was referring to the album that he was supposed to make for Columbia Records in the late '60's but refused to have released because he wasn't satisfied with it.  Another album that came out in that series (CBS Masterworks) was by Terry Riley, who had previous played in Young's ensemble, The Theatre of Eternal Music. Riley's 1968 release In C, and later A Rainbow In Curved Air (1969), would not only cause seismic waves in the classical world but also break into the consciousness of the pop world too. Note also that Riley, like fellow minimalist Steve Reich(and unlike Young), performs and tours fairly regularly and has recorded for a number of small and major labels, which also does wonders to get recognition for said composers.  That isn't to say that if Young had released his album with Columbia/CBS, he would have instantly gained the same recognition as Riley had, but that some great artists unintentionally will themselves into undeserved relative obscurity. 

(As a side note, I noticed another example of this problem of connecting with the public when the Computer Music Center at Columbia University offered a tour one month after the panel. This special one-time glimpse into the historic musical lab was manned by Terry Pender, the center's associate director and one of our consultants for OHM. Terry's a very sweet guy and very knowledgeable but you could tell that it was awkward for him to be doing this- as such, a former Onion writer who was now working at the Center was helping him to do a presentation for the tour group there. It's a shame that the Center isn't more open and accommodating to the public- some extraordinary American composers have been involved in the Center and it's still functioning today, nurturing a new generation of composers.)

Silver picked up on this point with another example- the late composer Maryanne Amacher.  Silver had worked at the Amacher Archive and related his similar frustrations that she also didn't receive the recognition she deserved in her lifetime.  Like some of the other composers listed above, Amacher entered the academic world (at Bard and other institutions) and though her works go back to the mid 60's, her discography amounted to just two albums and a few compilation cuts.  I also included her on OHM and found she wasn't the easiest person to work with either though that didn't mean we going to shut her out. It was just another example of the curse of self-imposed obscurity.

Our other panelist, Hans Tutchku, Director of Harvard University's Studio for Electroacoustic Composition, later shared these thoughts about the topic of artists being 'media friendly':

"Some artists seek to be very true to their artistic project and don't want to compromise.  In those cases it is more difficult to encounter the required circumstances for the presentations. But there is nothing wrong with it as long as it's really bound to the artistic vision."

Dan, our panel moderator, had another interesting issue for us to chew over, which he recalled for me afterwards:

"I was asking whether artists are doing themselves a disservice by releasing too many recordings in a short period of time (a result of the increased ease of music production and distribution).  Of course when a lot of artists are flooding the market at the same time, things reach a saturation point where everything starts to cancel out. The two phenomena are connected."

There was a lot of truth to that though I'd add a caveat.  Since I'm not an artist, I couldn't address it from that angle but having worked as a producer before, I would hate to think of situation where I told an artist to cork their creativity, especially if they found music flowing out of them.  My favorite example of this is Canadian ambient musician Aidan Baker who started releasing music around 2000.  Not counting about 30 or so albums of collaborations, in about a decade's time, he's released about 60-70 albums (compare that with the Rolling Stones, who have put out about two dozen albums since 1964).  Despite his prolific nature, Baker's been a showcase performer at SXSW and has had each of his new releases breathlessly reviewed in the influential Aquarius Records newsletter (as well as a recent interview in this zine).

Tutschku seemed to concur, later adding these thoughts about productivity: "I don't care so much about quantity. If an artist is very productive and can produce a lot of high quality work, he/she should put it out."

Finally, the panel came to the issue of social media, a nice current topic.  For the musicians in our audience, I explained that anyone who just advises you to have a social media site is doing you a disservice.  That's like telling a future race car driver that the secret to success is to get a license- of course, you have to do it but you can't leave it at that.  Having a social media site doesn't mean that anyone is going to flock to it or have any interest in your work.  Actually, most artists' social media sites are bland, pathetic failures.  It's not worth it to pick on any individual but unless you're a diehard fan, are you going to follow an artist's Twitter account where they only tell you when their new album's out or a concert's coming up?  Similarly, would you bother to slog through a homepage that's a blog, where worthwhile information about the artist is buried somewhere in a months-old posting?  We heard a somewhat dissenting opinion about social media from Tutchku, who said that he wasn't on Facebook, preferring to keep his information collected on his own website, though he also insisted " I'm not making a general statement about artists and social media."

That leads to another important point, which we briefly discussed at the panel- having a good solid homepage, which a lot of artists still don't understand the importance of.  If you want to see a good clean site that's interesting too, try New York conceptual composer Tristan Perich- on his homepage, you have his discography, list of projects, upcoming shows, music samples and bios in one neat package, with links to expand on each area of his work and enticing graphics that don't take forever to load up on your web browser.  Actually, Silver's homepage is another good example, presenting his material in a more compact way, providing easy links to the main sections.

And that was the gist of our panel.  Because of time constraints, I didn't get to cover some practical advice like finding an accountant and lawyer who were each conversant with the workings of the music biz or the importance of grants (and grant-writing software, which is tax deductible) or the practicalities of licensing your music (not just for commercials but also for soundtracks).  I would have also liked to cover how unusually crafted products had served their creators well- such as Perich's playable CD case or FM3's Buddha Machine.

Most of all, I wish I could have reminded the audience that in any genre of the music biz (including rock, pop), most artists can't earn a living from their work so, as Culter would say, you have to find other ways to sustain yourself.  Also, since no one really knows the future of the music biz (and if they say they do, they're lying of self-delusional), with technology changing the dynamics of it every few months, you have to keep up with the tech side of it, for better or worse- believe it or not, even Facebook will be as unhip as MySpace one day. 

At the very least also, I'd hope that for current and future electronic musicians, the composers mentioned above and their works and their careers might serve as some kind of useful example for their own work or at least a launching point to diverge off from, where you can break the rules once you learn them. And by all means, make sure you have a good power strip to plug into to keep your electronics working.


(As a side note, I'd also recommend attending the next Transcultural Conference in 2013- I found it to be a very enlightening and fascinating view into the art world)


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